Toward a Classical Counter-Elite
An education in hero-worship will aim to produce new heroes.
“Xerxes listened but could not understand.” — Herodotus
Classical schools must form aristocrats.
As it is, classical education students are being formed into white-collar proletarians who also happen to read Dante on the side and grow seasonal gourds. Alternatively, they are taught to reach for the stars and seek admittance to the existing institutions of elite life in America, whether corporate, legal, political, journalistic, or academic. If these succeed, they become members of the professional-managerial class of the woke American empire, albeit ones who go to church on Sundays, without making too big a deal about it.
Cue reader groans. Why talk about class, elites, and power? Can’t education be a refuge from politics? Many think so. Some of those who do are simply mistaken. Some others who say so are lying to you, so that they can insert their politics into the classroom instead of yours.
Education can never be “apolitical.” Exile from the life of the city is not a virtue. It is a punishment. Our schools are forming the kinds of citizens and leaders we will have in the future. We have bad citizens and bad leaders now because we educated them so poorly. So should classical schools form more apparatchiks for our senile regime? Or should they form a counter-elite who will burn down the cracked and rotting palaces of power and influence?
The prospects, unfortunately, are not good. My warning last month that the classical Christian education movement is infected with wokeness seemed ridiculous to some. But I was almost immediately vindicated in identifying the Classic Learning Test as a vector of this infection, by two different members of the CLT review board.
Ben Merkle, the president of New Saint Andrew’s College, revealed that things were even worse than I had imagined. I had figured that Jessica Hooten Wilson and the woke faction had been operating within CLT with an implicit diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda. Merkle revealed that the DEI agenda at CLT was explicit, replete with pie charts tracking author sex and ethnicity. I can see why he now appears to regret his involvement, as an unwitting token hire for lending conservative credibility to the CLT.
The second vindication of my warning came from Anika Prather, who conducted a long, public meltdown on Twitter accusing me of being a white supremacist. This is how the woke operate. A single stray pencil mark outside of their egalitarian indoctrination Scantron test, and they haul you out of your seat, march you into the hallway, and line you up for the oratorical firing squad.
So the movement is in worse shape than it appeared. Yet, if not eternal, hope at least springs enduring. David Goodwin, the president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, confessed to agreeing with everything I wrote (besides how I criticized his writing), though he worries that I will indict him for starting a school so that his own children could be educated properly, even though he’s a “commoner.”
Far be it from me! Even Leonidas, although no helot, was not first in line to the throne and was made a king of Sparta “unexpectedly,” but he nevertheless became “the most admired and the leader of the whole army” of the Hellenes in the war against Xerxes. Lineage for lineage’s sake is not what I advocate.
Goodwin is right that “indictments are easy to get these days.” So let me make my positive case, rather than just criticizing. The task of the classical Christian education movement is not to protect the status of the existing nobility, who trace their bloodlines through Harvard and the New York Times.
The task of classical Christian education is to train a noble class within our own institutions, so that they can supplant the class currently turning America into a dump.
There is nothing wrong with teaching “the masses,” as Goodwin says. Classical schools should liberate every single American kindergartener from learning about post-Butlerian gender theory and every high schooler from learning the racial-narcissist spin on American history. This is a simple matter of charity. Some combination of the Bible, Americana kitsch, traditional liberal arts, vigorous physical education, and some selection of “Great Books” would do this job wonderfully.
But educating the masses is peripheral to classical education.
Just as education can never be apolitical, neither can politics ever be non-educative. Or, to put it a little more gracefully: the laws are always teaching.
A leader may not be intending to teach, but so much the worse for the citizens, for the quality of a people will always be improved or degraded by those who rule. Just as a teacher must speak in a language that fits the age and intelligence of his students, so must the leader who wishes to edify his people most do so with an eye toward their particular character. When Solon was asked whether the laws he had given the Athenians were the best laws of all, he replied, “The best they could receive.”
So anyone who wishes to teach “the masses” must concern himself first with the elite. There is no sense in being dogmatically anti-elitist. Are you dogmatically anti-gravity? Elites are inevitable. Unlike gravity, however, we can change the character of our elite.
The elite is at the center. That is whom the movement, and the schools, and the teachers, and the books are really for. Classical educators must identify the most gifted students in their schools, track them into elite cohorts, and form them into the aristocratic souls who will be able to finally settle the culture war on the terms of liberalism’s unconditional surrender.
The kinds of people who have been leading our defeat for the past few decades will probably think this means training students in “anti-wokeness,” “apologetics,” “Christian worldview,” and “critical thinking.” These General McLellans need to sit down. Something new is needed. And now, I regret to inform you, I am going to talk about lists of books.
Anytime you make an argument about classical education you have to wade into the debate around book lists. The confrontations about “the canon” and “what constitutes a Great Book” have a dreary, repetitive, and bathetic quality because none of the combatants ever seem to stop to wonder what education is supposed to do. Everyone in the classical education world just agrees to say “virtue,” and move on, as if that is the most easy and obvious thing in the world.
But when we clarify, to say that this education is meant to produce men of power who will shape America to reflect the excellence of their own spirit, perhaps we will return to this confrontation with a keener sense of the stakes, and with a fiery lust for setting things aright.
Let the making of lists come to an end. We are play-acting, pretending to hand down to our children a tradition that was never itself handed down to us. We are orphans. We have no authority to pronounce about updating the canon, which is all, it seems, anybody wants to do: self-appointed revisers, nattering nabobs of narcissism, yammering on about light yet unable to recognize how black is the night of this present dark age.
The “canon” needs only to be rediscovered, and read. Providentially, we have already adopted its name in the name of our movement—“classical.” For the formation of a counter-elite nothing has and nothing will surpass the perfection of the Greek spirit and its second life in Rome.
The Greek and Roman classics are not simply a receptacle for hero-worship. Hero-worship is made by the Greek and Roman classics, because hero-worship is itself the blood coursing through them, giving them life in antiquity and today: the hero who slays the dragon and acquires undying fame.
When they realized that they were surrounded by the Persians, the Spartan hoplites asked their king to lead them into battle. “Leonidas, welcoming the eagerness of his soldiers, ordered them to prepare their breakfast quickly, since they would sit down for dinner in Hades.”
“The merits of these men, who would not regard them with wonder?” the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus asks. “They with one accord did not desert the post to which Greece had assigned them, but gladly offered up their own lives for the common salvation of all Greeks, and preferred to die bravely rather than to live shamefully.”
When King Xerxes heard from his scouts that the Spartans at Thermopylae were brushing their hair in camp—their practice anytime they were preparing to face death—meaning that they intended to fight him rather than retreat, he “listened but could not understand.”
According to Herodotus, the Pythia had prophesied that Xerxes’s might was so great that either Leonidas must die or Sparta be destroyed:
As for you who dwell in the vast land of Sparta,
Either your city of glory will perish, sacked by the Perseids,
Or else the boundaries of Lacedaemon will grieve for the death of a king born of Herakles,
Since neither bulls nor lions have enough might
to oppose him, for the power of Zeus is his possession.
And he, I declare, will not be restrained until one or the other is torn apart.
Blood was required, that of either the city or its king. The Pythia was right: Though spared destruction, Lacedaemon did indeed grieve the death of a Heraklid king. And though he lost his crown, he gained another. In the words of Simonides:
This sepulcher of valiant men has taken
The fair renown of Hellas for its inmate.
And witness is Leonidas, once king
Of Sparta, who hath left behind a crown
Of valor mighty and undying fame.
Every aristocracy that has emerged since can be measured against the Greeks and Romans. And the best ones did just that, holding themselves up against their ancient models to measure just how far they fell short, like a child looking at his pencil mark on the growth chart and then looking up with longing at the line showing his father’s height far above.
But if you are not even open to the comparison? If you have such an evanescent soul you fear merely shedding the light of antiquity upon it will make you evaporate? Then perhaps you really are fit for the role of senior executive vice president to the chief officer for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Once leaders in the classical Christian education movement recognize that the training ground of their counter-elite must be a thorough study of the Greeks and Romans, then we will be able to look upon “Great Books” programs and canon wars with the same mixture of bemusement and gratitude with which we consider the medieval monks, scribbling away in scriptoria, who transcribed Greek and Roman classics for the benefit of future generations without really understanding the words they wrote down.
“Great Books” is, ironically given that it has set itself against historicism, a highly contingent movement in history, a useful but blinkered invention to carry humanistic knowledge safely, as if in pairs, through the great flood of liberalism. Having now landed atop Ararat, how then if we should keep the door to the ark closed instead of populating the plain lying down below? Or moving into the plain, should we just settle down and get drunk? Let us fill the earth and subdue it.
You can keep these ancient-through-modern book lists for the education of the masses; they are too soft a stone with which to polish the hard steel of a new aristocracy.
It is here that I must meet the objections that will surely be raised in light of my “neo-Nietzschean machismo.” I am a lucky essay writer, to be on the receiving end of such catchy repartees. Am I focused on Greek and Roman antiquity just because I like white people? And where is the Christianity in my classical Christian education anyways?
My anti-woke comrade-in-arms, Ben Merkle, goes so far as to say that only Christianity justifies the study of the classical pagans. How? Why? It is not clear. Josh Herring, writing in Law & Liberty, relatedly warns that “classical Greece must be tempered by both Christianity and modernity.”
This is the confused thinking that arises out of not having a clear sense of what schools are for. The classical education movement’s pundits, when discussing curriculum and book lists, make the mistake of trying to write about everything there is to learn, as if school is the only time anyone will ever read a book. (Too true, in some cases.) It is strange that this totalizing view of the school, reminiscent of everyone’s favorite boogeyman (Dewey), lives on in the minds of classically minded pundits. They should know, they almost certainly do know most of the time, that schools cannot replace parents. Many things—most things even—must be learned at home.
Further, it should not be controversial to say that learning at school is a preparation for learning out of school. We must hope that our teachers and students alike will resemble Solon in his old age: “Each day grow older, and learn something new.” There should be no end to investigation until the light dies from your eyes; there will be plenty of time to explore the meandering byways of your own personal canon.
What I argue for here is the best possible education for the formation of a youthful aristocratic class: a sustained study of the Greeks and Romans, such as worthy elites once received.
Some will read this as saying that classical school students should do nothing other than read Greek and Roman classics, starting in kindergarten. While we doubtless expect far too little of our students, even I would call such a suggestion perverse. In the beginning, before identifying our elite, everyone will be jumbled together: a little bit of music here, Americana there, geometry and mathematics over there. Perhaps our bizarre syntheses of Great Books and the seven liberal arts and Little House on the Prairie and Wesleyan hymnody is just fine for this purpose. In that case, let it stand.
After all, classical schools need to be building a national Christian folk culture to replace the monstrous pop culture that degrades the souls and bodies of both elites and normal Americans. Does self-consciously and artificially re-creating a pious and patriotic folk culture count as “tempering” classicism with Christianity and modernity? If so, I will take it, even though sowing and caring for a folk culture is almost the antithesis of what the word “classical” implies. The angels brought to the shepherds “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” The Gospel is the announcement of grace for all men; the Greco-Roman classics are a celebration of aristocratic virtue.
Get daily emails in your inbox
Our counter-elite, being Americans, must share this folk culture in common with their countrymen. Perhaps sharing the culture and upbringing of the ὁμοῖοι is what helped make Leonidas, that unexpected king, so great.
But our new nobility must share their own intra-elite culture, as well. One that is actually classical. That is the subject of my concern here. The immortal achievements of the Greeks and Romans will remain the food for any hungry soul who, in the past, now, or in the future, desires to grasp at nobility. We should offer classical school students nothing less.
How will we know we have succeeded? Perhaps when one of the graduates of our schools is accosted by a resentful voice and told, “other than ruling, you are no different from us.” To which he will respond, like Leonidas once did, “I would not be ruling unless I were better than you.” And it will be true.